Growing up, I was taught that we, as five-fingered people, are all Indigenous Peoples to Earth, no matter where we come from. Our oral histories, which have been passed down through many generations, ensure who we are. This is what strengthens our connections to our surroundings. This is what makes us strong, resilient and Indigenous Earth Peoples.

The designation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Salt Lake City last fall was an act of healing for Native Americans, who have been silenced under our political and educational systems. Sadly, we have been ignored and placed in the margins of our society ever since the time of colonization. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is meant to honor tribal sovereignty, elevate local Native voices and to achieve social justice in Utah.

The greatest challenge society faces is in building hope and capacity among local Native Americans to reverse this history and show us that we have the power and ability to shape our communities, to elect our own leaders and to rely on cultural, traditional wisdom and the talents of our members to create positive change in the world.

We are at a critical juncture for restoring our natural human connections to the land, water and soil through conservation and the protection of sacred and spiritual sites. Collectively we are restoring ecological resiliency through improved management and habitat restoration and by growing and eating indigenous and endemic foods of the land. Bears Ears National Monument is a visionary model for reclaiming traditional, cultural knowledge as we highlight and practice these fundamental relationships and move toward our goal of healing.

Utah Diné Bikéyah’s second Annual Indigenous Dinner and fundraiser is an opportune time to celebrate our indigenous knowledge for how each wild food, animal, water, soil type, medicine and herb is understood. These are not only natural resources of the Earth, but we also know them to be living “nonhuman persons,” or beings, who act as participants in our lives and on the land. These beings are also knowledge keepers, who have intentions, values and a spiritual sense of belonging — just as we do as humans, or five-fingered people.

Food is a living, breathing being who holds stories, songs, prayers, gifts and powers that are bestowed on us as relatives. Indigenous food activists today are reclaiming our oldest understandings of our individual relationships with food, including the spiritual elements. They understand how food is grown, gathered, hunted, shared and moves through our communities.

Unfortunately, we often hear Western narratives that Native people suffer from the worst health outcomes in Utah and around the world. This Western narrative includes the rising cases of diabetes endemic to Native communities, food insecurity, food deserts and so on across Indian Country. However, outsiders often overlook the vibrant, intact food cultures that exist within our communities. We are not listening to the wealth of knowledge and wisdom from our elders who know the solutions to these food challenges, including helping the land thrive through our prayers and actions.

In spite of this plight, our traditional cultures remain intact. Traditional foodways are widely practiced and are the foundation for the cultures of each of the Eight Tribes of Utah. The younger generation is beginning to recognize the wisdom of the teachings of their elders, and it is our goal to revitalize our health, our traditional economies and our language and to heal each other through land conservation. We are creating sustainable economies and emphasizing healthy lifestyles.

Our second annual Indigenous Dinner is a step toward renewing this hope for building a stronger and healthier future as Indigenous Peoples. We hope you can join us, Oct. 8, on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, at the Natural History Museum of Utah (details can be found at utahdinebikeyah.org), as we celebrate indigenous foods of Utah and our connections to food and each other.

Cynthia Wilson

Cynthia Wilson is Utah Diné Bikéyah’s traditional foods program director.